December 25, 2007

Diamond blames the victim

A Question of Blame When Societies FallDr. Diamond, he said, “shifts all of the burden to people and their stupidity rather than to a complex ecosystem where these things interact.”

Taken together, the two books struck Frederick K. Errington, an anthropologist at Trinity College in Hartford, as a “one-two punch.” The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.
In Collapse, Diamond discusses how the Maya, Anasazi, and Easter Island cultures fell apart. But the author of this article isn't necessarily buying it:One afternoon I drove out to Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, about 130 miles northwest of Dragoon. Turning off North Arizona Boulevard near a Blockbuster Video store and KFC/Taco Bell, I saw the Great House, four stories high, loom into view. Abandoned over half a millennium ago by the Hohokam people, the earthen ruins have been incongruously protected from the elements by a steel roof on stilts designed in 1928 by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

One suspects that the Hohokam were content to let the place melt. Depending on which eyeglasses you are wearing, Casa Grande is a story of environmental collapse or of adaptation and resilience. When conditions no longer favored centralization the people moved on, re-emerging as the O’odham tribes and a thriving casino industry.

Abandonment as a strategy.
A telling point:At the seminar, Dr. McAnany suggested that the very idea of societal collapse might be in the eye of the beholder. She was thinking of the Maya, whose stone ruins have become the Yucatan’s roadside attractions. But the descendants of the Maya live on. She recalled a field trip by local children to a site she was excavating in Belize: “This little girl looks up at me, and she has this beautiful little Maya face, and asks, ‘What happened to all the Maya? Why did they all die out?’”

No one visits Stonehenge, she noted, and asks whatever happened to the English.
Comment:  We say the Maya and "Anasazi" civilizations collapsed because they didn't match our standard for success. Instead, we could say they evolved and their descendants are doing just fine. But we don't because we view other cultures others from our own myopic perspective.

Why did the British Empire collapse? Or the United States during the Great Depression? Or the American South after the Civil War? Diamond doesn't ask or answer these questions. Somehow it's not proper to apply anthropological analyses to sophisticated people like us.

Primitive societies collapse because, well, they're primitive, implies Diamond. Advanced societies collapse for mysterious reasons that have nothing to do with their inhabitants' inherent nature. For instance, we don't say Southerners were too primitive and savage to survive in the modern world, even though they owned slaves. We say the North won because it was richer and more industrialized.

I haven't read Jared Diamond's Collapse, but the naysayers are correct about Guns, Germs, and Steel. He addresses some of the reasons civilizations flourish, but not the key ones. As I wrote in my review:I'd say geographic and physical factors explain why "civilization" flourished in some places before others, but religious and cultural factors explain why some civilizations dominated others.

1 comment:

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
It also might seem that "Dr." Diamond ignores the factor of environmental change and instead assumes that conditions more or less have remained constant, especially in Europe. The Little Ice Age and The Year Without A Summer, plus the subsequent societal disruptions there prove that such a thesis is mistaken. Both civilization and industrialization also have proven to be no guarantees of societal success and in fact seem instead to be leading to the very kind of collapse that EuroMan's "standards for success" ostensibly have helped him to avoid. Diamond not only is myopic, he cannot see the ground around him because his nose is lifted so high in the air...
All Best
Russ Bates